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Corey Hart: Undercover First Baseman

With the publishing of Zach Sanders’ 2012 first base rankings on Monday, most owners probably had a good idea where everyone was going to fit. Obviously Miguel Cabrera was going to be king of the hill and everyone knew they were going to have a scroll a while to find Eric Hosmer‘s name. But quietly holding onto the seventh spot was a guy who didn’t even start the year in the first base discussion: Corey Hart.

According to ESPN’s average draft position, Hart was taken (on average) 98th overall – good agreement with Rotographs’ end-of-2011 FVARz ranking of him (94th). You won’t find him on the first baseman list, however, because there were few leagues where he was actually eligible at the position on draft day. Assuming he was eligible and assuming his relative valuation wouldn’t be that different going from corner outfield to first base, he would have slotted in as the 13th first baseman off the board, just ahead of Freddie Freeman and Adam Lind. So those owners who took a chance on him just past rounds eight and nine were undoubtedly handsomely rewarded in the value department.

During Hart’s age 30 season, he managed to stay relatively healthy — important for a guy that lost two months (OK, one month of spring training and one of the regular season) in 2011 due to an oblique strain. I should emphasize the “relatively,” as Hart did miss a handful of games early on his way back from knee surgery and was left out of the lineup repeatedly during the last few weeks of the season with a partially torn plantar fascia, likely causing some consternation among his head-to-head league owners who were generally without him for the last few weeks of the playoffs. That aside, with health came a boost in his counting stats from a rather solid 2011 campaign. His homer total climbed from 26 to 30, just one off his breakout total from 2010. He also scooped up 11 more runs and 20 more RBI while seeing a slight downtick (seven to five) in his stolen base total as his slowing legs get another year older.

Peripherally, Hart’s season wasn’t quite as bullish as his ranking might lead you to believe. His K% jumped nearly four percent to 24.3% even though his SwStr% dipped a bit from 12.8% to 12.2%. With his SwStr% already over the league average rate of about 8.5% on a year-to-year basis, it’s an ominous sign that his strikeout rate should continue on a trajectory closer to his 2012 numbers than 2011. His upward K% trend was amplified by a drop in BB% from 9.3 to 7.1% — a change somewhat counterintuitive since he saw a decline in pitches in the zone (45.4 to 44.2%) and first-pitch strikes (65.5 to 61.6%) in 2012. His BABIP remained right in line with both 2011 and his career average, sitting at an impressive .318 for a guy lacking truly above-average speed. Good news for Hart here, his LD% (the main driver of that .315+ BABIP) fell only slightly and at 19.3%, is still above his 18.5% career average. He did exchange a few groundballs for flyballs, but that is probably not a bad thing for a guy who has put up HR/FB of 16.8%, 19.7%, and 18.1% over the last three years. Otherwise the rest of his batted ball profile remains surprisingly steady.

If fantasy owners are looking for a silver lining in some of the negatives in the aggregate stats mentioned above, they might want to head on over to Hart’s daily stat graphs page. Interestingly, his cumulative stats all tended to go the “right direction” as the temperature warmed up. That sagging BB%? Still down overall, but at least it climbed a bit in the second half. Ditto (but opposite) for that elevated K%. Slash components like OBP (.316 before the all-star break as opposed to .357 after) vs. and OPS (.814 to .876) show similar trends — late-season Hart was marginally better than his early-season counterpart, so those who believe in finishing the year strong (minus that whole foot injury thing) should take heart (Hart!).

All of this makes him an interesting candidate for drafters in 2013. While Milwaukee has gone ahead and publicly called Hart the team’s first baseman for next year, his 53 appearances in the outfield this season should help him retain the positional flexibility he enjoyed this year. He’ll be 31 years old and, given typical aging curves, has likely seen the peak of his career arc, especially with his wrong-way trend in K/BB. That said, his production has remained remarkably steady over the last few seasons (when he’s been on the field), so unless he begins aging, well, ungracefully, he could be a solid value pick if he slips past pick 90 again. Just like he was in 2012.